I Write Like: Not such a great idea after all

A couple of days ago, I thought I’d found another cool and exciting tool to play with when you can’t actually write. I enjoy Wordle (possibly too much), and here I thought I had another one.

We were all very excited about it on Twitter. A friend put me on to a site called “I Write Like,” which he’d used to discover that he writes like Vladimir Nabokov, the famous Russian-American writer of Lolita.

I dashed over to experiment. The first two chapters of The Inheritor, my latest book, were written, the site claimed, in the style of James Joyce. Oh wow, I thought. It couldn’t get any better unless they’d said I wrote in the manner of Dostoevsky. Fans of James Joyce might be a little disturbed to find a fantasy book that unconsciously emulated Ulysses, we speculated.

My non-fiction autobiography, Distant Ground, is very much like Chuck Palahniuk. Once again, I’d call that high praise.

As I was doing this, other writers on Twitter were reporting back on their own findings. I searched through a few more samplings and discovered that some chapters of books were like Mario Puzo and occasionally – horror of horrors – like Dan Brown.

Finally, I decided it wasn’t especially healthy to be doing this, especially when there lurked amongst the greats of literary achievement some real turkeys. You don’t want to write something, craft it for hours and days and months and find out that it has about as much literary merit as a Kellogg’s cereal box.

A friend and I did a little musing over how accurate something like this could possibly be, and whether it was largely random. Our speculations remained unconfirmed until I noticed Manchester Libraries’ Twitter feed listing blogs discussing the tool.

Christopher Taylor on the London Review of Books’ blog, reports that he writes like either Dan Brown or Nabokov, implying a kind of Jekyll and Hyde literary unpleasantness. The comments were very interesting. One individual entered his order confirmation from Amazon.com.

It’s written in the style of James Joyce.

Confused? Amnar and Ulysses and Amazon’s order confirmation page. Not exactly literary siblings.

That isn’t all, however. Mosey over to Neilsen Hayden’s blog, Making Light, where they have written two posts on the subject. In the first, they show that with a little testing, most famous authors actually write like completely different famous authors (and rarely like themselves), and that you can enter gobbledegook and be told you write like James Joyce.

As the Making Light blog then goes on to suggest in the second post, there is an alarming little message underneath the “I write like” badge. I’d noticed this, and felt uncomfortable.

It’s a “how to get published!” ad, and it reminds me of the ones put out by companies who pretend to be traditional publishers and in fact scam authors out of money, time and energy they could be spending on real publishing houses. Of course, I’m not saying that’s definitely what it was, but whenever I see a line like “Find out how I went from nobody to God’s gift to the literary world!” from somebody I’ve never heard of, I worry.

Making Light’s assessment is that this is basically a scam intended to get very eager unpublished authors to sign up to publishers that were once traditional and are now basically vanity publishers. Many of these promise authors the fame and fortune of J.K. Rowling when what they offer is just a self-publishing outlet.

This left me a little confused about the I Write Like site. After I’d originally played with the tool and bored myself silly by being compared to James Joyce (now no longer such a great compliment), I’d popped over to the site’s creators, Coding Robots.

On the version of the I Write Like site I saw back on Thursday and Friday, there were little boxes on the page advertising Coding Robots’ journal writing app from Mac, Mémoires. I downloaded that, had a play, and decided it was almost as good as Scrivener is for writing pretty much anything.

Reading the blogs, I find it hard to square the I Write Like scam with designers of excellent writing software for bloggers and diarists. I checked out their blog, and even they seem to agree it’s nonsense, having put up a link to True/Slant’s experiment with the tool.

What can I say to that? Well, it’s probably not helpful for a giddy wannabe writer to find themselves compared to James Joyce (who writes like the Amazon site, let’s not forget), to be presented with what is essentially an advert for a vanity publisher.

It isn’t actually going to tell you much, because the engine couldn’t really be expected to analyse every aspect of your prose style and the quality of your work. Especially not if it thinks random strings of vowels and consonants compare to Dubliners.

So the advice here is, have a play with it, and in the words of True/Slant, completely ignore the findings.

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5 Responses to I Write Like: Not such a great idea after all

  1. Jeff Burdett says:

    I was told I write like Chuck Palahniuk… and Arthur Conan Doyle.

    Tyler Durden as Sherlock Holmes?

    “You are not your fucking Deerstalker!”

    …Maybe not.

  2. Joely says:

    Jeff – I can see it now! You might have to write that up…

  3. I wonder what the site owners are doing with the writing that gets submitted for assessment? Yucky yucky yuck.

  4. Melissa says:

    LOL! Just found this and it reminded me of this post I read recently.

    http://temmahkrik.wordpress.com/2010/07/17/i-write-like-milton-you-just-wont-read-it-that-way/

    So funny what people are doing with this I Write Like thing. I love it!

  5. Joely says:

    Melissa,

    Hiya! Great post. I used to know Amanda. She’s a great writer and very funny, too.

    Thanks for the link.

    Joely xx

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